A story on the Moral Majority's boycott of TV sponsors in Sunday's Show section listed Ralph Nader's National Citizens Committee for Broadcasting as an ally of the Moral Majority in the use of TV boycotts. The NCCB wishes to make it clear that while it supports the use of a boycott as a tactic in efforts against violence on TV, it does not support the Moral Majority's boycott.
THIS SUMMER, television entertainment becomes an important political battleground.
On one side are the Moral Majority and approximately 150 other fundamentalist, anti-ERA, anti-abortion groups that have formed the Coalition for Better Television (CBTV) and promise to boycott sponsors who support "offensive" program material.
CBTV's allies in this particular struggle include Ralph Nader's National Citizens Committee for Broadcasting.
"Citizen action is very good, particularly with regard to this medium," says NCCB Director Sam Simon. "People should exercise their economic power."
One the other side is People for the American Way (PAW), a coalition of church and lay leaders formed by producer Norman Lear last fall to combat the "far right."
The PAW centers its efforts on fighting the banning of books, on general public education, and on its recently completed public service announcements -- which they hope television will broadcast for free later this summer. "The announcements show people arguing about everything," says Lear. "They argue about politics, about sports, and even about eggs. The purpose is to show that Americans should not be told to all have the same opinion."
Politics, however, is the key. The Moral Majority and other CBTV groups have already targeted key 1982 state and congressional elections. "Television programs do contribute to the rise of violence and dehumanization, but the coalition's primary goal is to impose their political, social, moral and economic values on American says PAW board member Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum of the American Jewish Committee.
This CBTV-PAW conflict may be the most important thing happening to American television today. But few people are paying attention.
The opening salvo came last February, when the Moral Majority and other fundamentalist and politically conservative groups formed the Coalition for Better Television, whose board members include Falwell and anti-feminist leader Phyllis Schlafly. The CBTV chairman is Reverent Donald E. Wildmon of Tupelo, Miss., who in 1977 formed the church-based National Federation for Decency in order to promote what he termed "morality" on television.
Wildmon has enlisted volunteers willing to scrutinize television for "suggested sexual intercourse," violence and other immoral acts. "In June or July," Wildmon says, the CBTV will ask its followers to boycott the products of at least one major sponsor of "offensive" programs.
The CBTV may have the financial and technical resources to carry out the threat. Sympathetic evangelists regularly reach a shared audience numbering tens of millions through their own television and radio stations, and collectively they raise up to $500 million a year -- tax free.
By attacking televised sex and violence -- which draw fire from just about every point on the political spectrum -- the CBTV is also picking up an extremely wide base of potential support. Marion Young, who has been conducting a project to monitor TV violence for the National PTA since 1977, says, "Network reaction to the CBTV is bordering on the hysterical. They responded this way when we began. They said 'censor, censor, censor' to us."
Young endorses the concept behind CBTV's efforts because, she says, "viewers have rights, too."
Another supporting voice comes from Nader's NCCB, which for years has been publicizing the names of sponsors that support violent programs. NCCB director Simon is worried, however, that the CBTV's association with the "New Right" is "diluting attention from the problem of televised violence."
(The PTA and NCCB emphasis on violence highlights a division among groups that protest network programming: Liberals worry about violence; conservatives about sex.)
Falwell paints himself as an advocate only of better TV. None of this is intended to "repress ideas," he emphasizes. "We're talking about dirt."
What constitutes dirt? Interviews with CBTV leaders and examination of their publication reveals that their definitions are broader than, say, those of the Supreme Court. Abortion is "immoral." Homosexuality is "perverse." o"Un-christian" behavior is unacceptable. The expression, "Oh God," is a profanity. A filmed biography of birth-control advocate Margaret Sanger is objectionable.
Despite the obviously controversial nature of this agenda, Falwell claims that many major advertisers are now quietly approaching him to "capitulate."
"Of the top 100 companies that spend the most dollars," he says, "over 90 percent have made a very positive move in the right direction." According to Wildmon, "Just a handful of companies are doing business as usual." In a letter to his supporters, he writes that "victories come more easily than you might imagine."
These claims cannot be confirmed because Falwell and Wildmon, fearing a backlash, refuse to release company names.
But the $10-billion-a-year television advertising industry unquestionably finds itself squeezed between two marketplace pressures: the need to reach as large as possible an audience, and the fear that sex and violence used to generate such audiences will alienate potential customers. When conflicts arise, many sponsors apparently forsake size for respectability.
"There have been instances in which advertisers pulled out of a show because of one telephone call," says CBS vice president for program practices Donn H. O'Brien. "It doesn't take a whole lot to shake them up."
Fear of Falwell-inspired protests has already had an industrywide effect. Last March, an Advertising Age front-page headline quoted a knowledgeable advertising executive who admitted that "the [cost] premium on the so-called clean shows [may be] as much as 25 percent above what their ratings would demand."
Although the clean-premium issue then virtually disappeared from the trade press, network officials confirm this price differential, explaining that "marketplace pressures" have increased the value of commercial slots on nonviolent, nonsexual shows.
"There just aren't enough safe shows to go around," laments a top ad agency officer.
According to Moral Majority spokesman Calvin Thomas, the CBTV is "merely after more balance, more shows that don't make a quick hit by taking off some clothes." Critics of CBTV charge, however, that the coalition wants to reshape television in its own image.
The networks, quite predictably, have responded with shouts of censorship.
"Our failure to act on principles could subject this industry to the blacklisting practices of the early 1950s," ABC, Inc., executive vice president Frederick S. Pierce recently told the annual convention of American Association of Advertising Agencies. "What happens when the coalition decides, as it ultimately will, to dictate 'politically' acceptable programs -- or the context of your commercials?"
Pierce failed to remind his audience, however, that the television industry willingly participated in these blacklists. But an awareness of this danger, perhaps spawned by the McCarthyism taint, prompts network executives to confront Falwell head-on.
"If the Moral Majority obtains a veto over programming content, it can be exercised in any direction," says CBS vice president Gene Mater. "Remember that television is our largest single news medium. We might also remember that in Berlin on the evening of May 10, 1933, books were thrown into the bonfire in the name of national solidarity and high principles."
Such talk doesn't frighten the CBTV. Falwell calls the network executives "crybabies," and Hurt says that "in the McCarthy era if you didn't like somebody you called them a Communist. This time you call a man a censor."
The CBTV has also zeroed in on the networks' chief weakness: the quality of prime-time programs. By attacking these programs, they are tapping a preexistent reservoir of discontent. Many advertising executives, who promise in private to stand firm against boycotts, call most network offerings "junk."
"One reason we're so vulnerable is we're so criticizable," says Grant Tinker, whose company produces "WKRP," "Lou Grant," "Hill Street Blues" and other shows generally regarded as among the best on television because they deal honestly with real social issues.
Even the CBTV's opponents refuse to shed blood for "Flamingo Road." People for the American Way, for example, is not publicly attacking the threatened CBTV boycott. "We don't want to get into it," says a PAW official. "To talk about program content is to play their game."
Furthermore, the CBTV has adopted tactics used by blacks, Jews, feminists, homosexuals and other groups not normally associated with the Moral Majority's goals. These groups continually lobby to eliminate offensive material and have been extraordinarily successful, most often prompting the networks to forestall criticism through diligent self-censorship. Now the CBTV wants similar treatment.
Network executives claim to see a difference, and insist they will never censor "ideas," but the CBTV has precedents to cite. Under sponsor pressure in the 1950s, CBS, NBC and ABC gave muscle to the McCarthyite blacklists. In the '60s, CBS forbade anti-war songs by Joan Baez and Pete Seeger on "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour."
Perhaps the CBTV's most important strength is its awareness that many people, including their followers, love television. Wildmon calls "Dallas" "one of the worst shows," and yet it has 50 million regular viewers.A call to turn off such shows would attract only "a handful of preachers . . . aand a handful of deeplyl dedicated church members," Hurt admits.
Falwell's solution is to leave "Dallas" on the air, but force the networks to remove "bedroom scenes and four-letter words and other vulgar profanity."
Only "once in a great while will you see J.R. in bed with anybody," counters CBS vice president Mater. "It is always afterward, never before or during. What bedroom scenes is he talking about?"
The question of whether a Moral Majority-approved "Dallas" would still be the superstar "Dallas" exposes the hole in the CBTV's strategy. Falwell and his colleagues are trying to eliminate television's most popular commodities -- sex and violence. Last season's highest-rated made-for-TV movie, for example, was "Fallen Angel," a tale of child pornography.
Some of the assertions and implications made by CBTV officials and backers are open to question.The Rev. Hurt disparages "explicit scenes of adultery, fornication and homosexual activity" -- none of which have ever been explicitly shown on screen. Conservative Digest says that Wildmon forced Kentucky Fried Chicken to "limit its advertising to news and children's programming," a claim that parent-company Heublein Corp. dismisses as "totally false." Wildmon takes credit for killing ABC's TV version of the hit movie about homosexuals "La Cage aux Folles," yet ABC vice president Pierce says the program "never existed."
The CBTV's most telling claim involves a boycott of General Foods (with at least 34 TV-advertised products on the market) and American Home Products (with at least 50) organized last year by Hurt. This is, in effect, a trial run for a CBTV-led boycott. Wildmon says it has significantly "affected sales," and, as evidence, cites a report in The Memphis Tennessean. But the Tennessean story, based on their survey of "about 25 stores," reported that the boycott had "hardly been felt."
To succeed, Falwell and his associates may not even have to organize a boycott. They may simply announce that the private response from sponsors is satisfactory and that CBTV program monitors will be on call in case the networks slip back into unacceptable behavior. The CBTV will not need a public victory to be victorious.
And from another -- perhaps more important -- perspective, the CBTV may already have won. CBTV's principal members, people such as Falwell and Phyllis Schlafly, have political agendas totally unrelated to sex and violence on television. Their attacks on television are entirely consistent with conservative criticisms that date back to Robert Taft's warfare with Eastern newspapers in the 1940s. ("We need a new media," a Falwell aide told reporters after a recent press conference. "You don't have an open mind anymore. You're just stewing in the old threadbare ideas of liberalism.")
The key here is members of the public who are not active politically, but who want to protest against network television. A CBTV spokesman says that "tremendous" numbers of people have responded favorably to the boycott threat, and Hurt says that his efforts have generated "hundreds of thousands" of letters.
Producer Norman Lear thinks that Falwell may want to put "those names and addresses in their computers so that they can get mailings that have nothing in the world to do with television."
These mailings are the lifeblood of groups such as the Moral Majority. Falwell alone, for example, mails out more than 1.5 million pieces each week to stir up support and raise money for Moral Majority projects.
Support for Lear's belief comes from Richard Viguerie, the master mass mail fund-raiser for conservative causes. Viguerie recently told The Boston Globe, "The networks may beat us -- they may, after three or four years still have their sex and violence on television -- but in the meantime, Jerry Falwell and others may increase their list of supporters by three-, or four- or five-fold. And we can do something the networks cannot do, which is get involved in political campaigns."